I recently read about a group of amazing computer programmers who emigrated to the US. They came out of Russia, in a time when Russia had very few computers. With little knowledge of the English language, they were able to use their superior programming skills to not only survive, but thrive, and build highly lucrative and successful careers.
At first glance, this seems counterintuitive. If they had extremely limited access to computers, how did they even learn to program, let alone become experts? The solution actually comes from the scarcity – if you have limited access to something, you learn to make the most of what you do have. You spend a lot of time planning, and thinking about the best, most efficient ways to do things. You don’t just try things to see what happens (much), but must really learn how to take advantage of every second you have with the computer.
Similarly, if you have limited access to an NMR, HPLC, or other scientific equipment, you are going to plan your experiments carefully, making sure to get the most information from each minute you do have on the machine. You will most likely spend some of your more copious non-machine time thinking deeply about the science behind how the device works, what is special and unique about your samples, to find clever ways to get the most data in the smallest amount of time. This is often how new techniques are invented, and how existing ones are extended.
You don’t need to move to a country with limited resources to learn how to be efficient. What are the tools and techniques you currently take for granted? Which have you used for so long that you don’t really think about them any more? Can you take a step back, look with a fresh eye, and really think about what you are doing, and why you are doing it?
This philosophy can be extended to other parts of your life as well. What habits have you developed, and do they still make sense? We’ve all heard the joke about the woman who always cut the end off her pot roast and threw it away before cooking it. She always did it because her mother had always done it, and her mother did it because HER mother had always done it. But when the woman finally asked her grandmother why she did that, the answer was because her pan wasn’t big enough to fit the whole thing. This habit had been passed down for three generations – what started out as a practical solution to a current problem turned into an expensive waste when circumstances changed, and no one thought to question why they did things that way.
What office or lab habits have you developed, that you don’t think about anymore? Maybe now is the time to think about those things that you don’t think about, re-examine why you do them that way, and see if there’s a better way, a new tool, or an updated technique that can save you time or effort. Sure, there will be an initial investment to look into the options, examine the advantages and disadvantages of each one, and maybe learn a new tool, but that may be more than made up for by savings in time or additional information obtained in future experiments.
Change is always difficult, and most people avoid it whenever possible. It’s easier just to continue doing things the way they have always been done. But sometimes, investing a little time and effort to really think about what you are doing, and why you are doing it that way, can pay off big in the long run.
This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants LLC. Lisa is a freelance technical writer/editor and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists: New Formulas for Chemistry Careers,” published by Oxford University Press.